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Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary

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The name Beowulf refers to more than one character, item or concept. For a list of other meanings, see Beowulf (disambiguation).
Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, together with Sellic Spell
Beowulf - A Translation and Commentary.jpg
AuthorJ.R.R. Tolkien
EditorChristopher Tolkien
PublisherHarperCollins (UK)
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (US)
Released22 May 2014

Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, together with Sellic Spell is a book which contains Tolkien's 1926 translation of Beowulf. In addition to Tolkien's commentary on the ancient poem, it also features Sellic Spell, a story by Tolkien written in the form and mode of Beowulf.[1]



Tolkien worked on two translations of Beowulf, one in alliterative verse, another in prose. While the former was left unfinished, the latter was completed in April 1926.[2]

Tolkien already remarked on his translation of Beowulf in 1940 in his "Prefatory Remarks on Prose Translation of 'Beowulf'", published in Beowulf and the Finnsburg Fragment. Two passages (one verse and one prose) from the translations appeared in J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator. In the mid-2000s, Michael D.C. Drout worked on an edition of Tolkien's translation of Beowulf, but the Tolkien Estate withdrew permission for the project.[3]


  • Preface
  • Introduction to the Translation
  • Beowulf
  • Notes on the text of the Translation
  • Introductory note to the Commentary
  • Commentary
  • Sellic Spell
  • The Lay of Beowulf

Official description

The translation of Beowulf by J.R.R. Tolkien was an early work, very distinctive in its mode, completed in 1926: he returned to it later to make hasty corrections, but seems never to have considered its publication. This edition is twofold, for there exists an illuminating commentary on the text of the poem by the translator himself, in the written form of a series of lectures given at Oxford in the 1930s; and from these lectures a substantial selection has been made, to form also a commentary on the translation in this book.

From his creative attention to detail in these lectures there arises a sense of the immediacy and clarity of his vision. It is as if he entered into the imagined past: standing beside Beowulf and his men shaking out their mail-shirts as they beached their ship on the coast of Denmark, listening to the rising anger of Beowulf at the taunting of Unferth, or looking up in amazement at Grendel’s terrible hand set under the roof of Heorot.

But the commentary in this book includes also much from those lectures in which, while always anchored in the text, he expressed his wider perceptions. He looks closely at the dragon that would slay Beowulf “snuffling in baffled rage and injured greed when he discovers the theft of the cup”; but he rebuts the notion that this is “a mere treasure story”, “just another dragon tale”. He turns to the lines that tell of the burying of the golden things long ago, and observes that it is “the feeling for the treasure itself, this sad history” that raises it to another level. “The whole thing is sombre, tragic, sinister, curiously real. The ‘treasure’ is not just some lucky wealth that will enable the finder to have a good time, or marry the princess. It is laden with history, leading back into the dark heathen ages beyond the memory of song, but not beyond the reach of imagination.”

Sellic spell, a “marvellous tale”, is a story written by Tolkien suggesting what might have been the form and style of an Old English folk-tale of Beowulf, in which there was no association with the “historical legends” of the Northern kingdoms.


In a discussion group at Facebook, Renée Vink noted a possible error in Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary and asked:

Did Tolkien actually make a spelling error in the commentary on p. 292 of Beowulf, did Christopher Tolkien misread his father's handwriting here, or is "Rocke" really an existing variant of the old German word "Recke", warrior?

Carl F. Hostetter forwarded the question to Christopher Tolkien himself, who replied:

Rocke is a mere mistake for Recke which got into the typescript of the book at some stage and was never subsequently noticed. The typesetting of this book was a long nightmare (computer to computer), and it may well be that there are other errors of this sort — indeed there certainly are a number of errors, but almost none of those so far identified are significant: the only other one (so far as I know) that is really troublesome, beside Rocke, is on p.273, line 8, where till should be still!

External links



  1. HarperCollins, "Press Release" dated 19 March 2014, J.R.R. Tolkien's Beowulf (accessed 19 March 2014)
  2. Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull (2006), The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: II. Reader's Guide, pp. 84-85
  3. Michael D.C. Drout, "Tolkien's Beowulf: The Real Story" dated 27 March 2014, (accessed 28 March 2014)
  4. "Tolkien's Beowulf to be Published in May - For Discussion and Exploration group" dated 16 July 2014, Facebook (accessed 16 July 2014)